2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
Modernity, diasporic capital, and 1950's Hong Kong Mandarin cinema
by Poshek Fu
Study of Hong Kong film culture in English-speaking academia has matured rapidly in the last two decade. Critical attention has been expanded beyond the periods before the 1980s and includes different film genres, its industrial connections with different parts of the pan-Chinese world, and films in languages other than Cantonese. Recent interests in the globalization and cultural politics of Shaw Brothers cinema in the 1960s and 1970s illuminate these trends. However, Shaw Brothers' rival studio in Singapore and Hong Kong has been little studied.[open notes in new window] This is the Cathay Organization-MP&GI, which was most famous for its series of urban romance and musicals (several of which were written by the celebrated writer Eileen Chang) — including Our Sister Hedy (Si qianjin), The Battle of Love (Qingchang ru zhangchang) and Mambo Girl (Manbo nulang). This studio projected a dazzling perspective on modern life and sensibility in its films. In fact, before the building of Shaw Brothers Movietown in Clearwater Bay in the late 1950s, Cathay-MP&GI dominated the film business of postwar Hong Kong, shaping in particular the industrial practice and production trends of Mandarin cinema. Both diasporic Chinese capitalist corporations played critical roles in leading Hong Kong to become a global cinematic city.
To correct this academic imbalance, my essay analyzes the broader context of postwar Hong Kong history and migrant culture in which Cathay-MP&GI developed to become the dominant film company. I focus on one of its most celebrated film, Air Hostess (Kong zhong xiaozhe), to bring to light the ways Cathay-MP&GI production was intricately intertwined with the changes in gender relations and the Cold War politics of postwar Hong Kong and Chinese cinemas.
Postwar Mandarin cinema in crisis
The 1950s were a period of change and uncertainty in Hong Kong in general, and its Mandarin film industry in particular. The colony recovered rapidly from its almost four years of Japanese occupation. In contrast, across the Pearl River, China remained ravaged by continuous violence after eight years of bloody war against Japan. The Nationalist-Communist Civil War brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy when the Communists took over the mainland in 1949. Tens of thousands of Chinese people fled to Hong Kong in search of a better future. As a result, the population of the colony jumped dramatically from about 600,000 in the wake of liberation from Japanese occupation in August 1945 to over two million in 1951, and in 1961, to three million.
Some of the refugees were studio executives and film artists from Shanghai. To rebuild their careers in exile, they contributed in an important way to rebuilding the Mandarin cinema industry in postwar Hong Kong. The “King of Chinese Cinema,” Zhang Shankun, for example, fled to the colony to escape persecution by the Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government for his ambiguous cooperation with the Japanese in wartime Shanghai. And Li Zuyong, a finance tycoon with intimate connections to Nationalists, left Shanghai during the Civil War to look for business opportunities in Hong Kong.
Zhang and Li teamed up to found Yonghua (Ever China) Productions in 1947 to make Mandarin films. They imported film equipment from Europe and the United States and recruited hundreds of directors and actors from Shanghai, including such major stars such as Tao Jin, Liu Qiong, and Li Lihua. Yonghua’s debut films, Bu Wancang’s The Soul of China (Guohun) and Zhu Shilin’s Palace Intrigues (Qinggong mishi), were both huge-budget costume dramas projecting a pro-Nationalist sentiment and won praise from critics and had great box-office success in Hong Kong as well as in China and Southeast Asia. Yet, the worsening Civil War in 1948-1949 caused the Chinese banking system and currency market to collapse; thus Yonghua received only a small fraction of their box-office benefits. Then came the Communist victory in 1949, which virtually closed the China market to Hong Kong cinema.
The close of their China market threw Yonghua and all other Mandarin film studios into a state of crisis. Their survival depended on access to the mainland. In fact, to all Mandarin film producers, Hong Kong only represented a safe and convenient production site since their films were made for the mainland (particularly Shanghai) market. While the whole industry was dealt a serious blow by the market change, Yonghua was particularly hard hit because of its poor finance management and huge operating costs. Tensions between Li Zuyong and Zhang Shankun increased, and in 1949, Zhang was forced out of the studio. Yonghua survived for a few years, thanks to loans from its Southeast Asian distributor, the Cathay Organization, and the Nationalist government, which had gone into exile in Taiwan in 1949. Its production exhibited a pronouncedly anti-Communist bent.
Yonghua was one of thirty-three Mandarin film studios in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. Most of these studios were small, without their own production crews. Their financing was weak; they could start a project only when they acquired funding from investors and found distributors interested in its market potential. Yet this flexibility enabled them to survive better than Yonghua in these worsening business condition. The loss of its China market forced the industry to reformulate its marketing strategy.
Except for one or two pro-Beijing film companies, including Changcheng (Great Wall), which were allowed to continue to sell films to the mainland, all film studios tried to survive the change in business conditions to shift their market focus to the diasporic Chinese community in Southeast Asia while trying to increase their market share in Hong Kong. They invested in small budget Cantonese productions or simply made a Cantonese-language copy of every Mandarin film they produced. Above all, they sought to open new markets in Taiwan. With so many Nationalist officials and functionaries fled there from the Lower Yangzi region, Taiwan had become the largest Mandarin-speaking community outside of the mainland.
But these markets were difficult to develop. By 1955 the Mandarin film industry was permeated by a sense of gloom and anxiety. In a roundtable discussion in that year, for example, industry leaders — including producer Zhang Shankun and director Bu Wancang — warned that Mandarin cinema would collapse unless the industry could expand its distribution network. The Southeast Asia market was vulnerable because of the political and economic volubility of the region partly as a result of the widespread postwar decolonialization movements. In Singapore and Malaya, moreover, Mandarin cinema had to compete with popular Hollywood motion pictures and films in Malay and various dialects (particularly Cantonese). In Hong Kong, screens were dominated by Cantonese productions and Hollywood spectacles, while Mandarin film artists remained mostly unfamiliar to local audiences. Thus, in 1955, over 120 Mandarin films produced in the past five years, including many with Cantonese dubbing, were still in backlog, waiting to be distributed in theaters.
Taiwan turned out to be the most disappointing of all; its intricate Cold War politics of anti-communism frustrated everyone in the cinema business. Because Taiwan’s film industry was still in its infancy, it was the official policy of Taipei to mobilize support from the Hong Kong Mandarin film industry in its global war against Chinese communism. The Taiwan government pledged, therefore, to provide all forms of subsidies and market assistance to Mandarin filmmakers who were not affiliated with the Beijing-sponsored studios in exchange for their loyalty and propaganda efforts. In the parlance of the time, they were the “Freedom filmmakers” (ziyou yingren) devoted to promoting the Nationalist cause of anti-communism as well as promoting Chinese Confucian tradition (which was allegedly under Communist attacks on the mainland) in Hong Kong and other Chinese communities around the globe. Financial supports included, in particular, production subsidies and access to the growing Chinese-language film market in Taiwan.
However, the policy was frustratingly inconsistent and subject to all sorts of contingencies. For example, while a few “Freedom” films — such as Zhang Shankun’s Qiu Jin the Revolutionary Heroine (Qiu Jin, 1954) and Tu Guangqi’s Semi-Lower Class Society (Ban xialiu shehui, 1955) — won awards from the Nationalist regime in the early 1950s for their skillful projection of anti-communism and pro-Taiwan nationalism, both were however banned in 1956 (along with other 60 Mandarin pictures). Censors had “discovered” that some members of their production crew were “communists,” even though these “traitors” changed sides only after completing the film. Similarly, in 1955 Taiwan raised import duties for Mandarin films by twenty percent as a punishment for their “lack of contributions” to the anti-communist crusade. As one of the industry leader pointed out in frustration:
“Freedom filmmakers had to sell their films [to different markets] and had done their best to help promoting pro-Taiwan nationalism without falling foul of censorship [in both Hong Kong and Southeast Asia]. These punishments would serve no other purpose but destroy the [pro-Taiwan] Mandarin film industry,” thereby pushing more filmmakers to “defect to the Communist cause.”
Limited outlets attracted few investors. As a consequence, small investments resulted in a decreased number of productions and lower standard of production. According to producer Hu Jinkang, while profits from each film dropped almost half between 1951 and 1955, the production budget per film decreased from HK$300,000 in 1951 to HK$120,000 in 1955. Similarly, there were one third fewer films produced in 1955 than in 1953. The Hong Kong Mandarin cinema industry was in crisis; many small film studios folded and unemployment was rampant. Amidst this atmosphere of depression, the plan of the Cathay Organization to expand its distribution network into Southeast Asia and expand its production facilities in Hong Kong brought hope for a renaissance of Mandarin film culture outside China.
New and modern: Cathay-MP&GI
The Cathay Organization was founded in 1947 in Singapore, and to viewers around the world, its history was synonymous with the charm and charisma of its founder, Dato Loke Wan Tho (1910-1964). The only son of the fourth (and most business-minded) wife of the Chinese-born Malayan billionaire Loke Yew, Loke received his post-primary education in the West (Switzerland and England), adopting a Westernized, highly cosmopolitan outlook. His demeanor was that of a British gentleman, immaculately dressed and graciously mannered in his constant socializing with the rich and famous of the world. Loke was by temperament more a scholar in love with nature and the world of ideas and truth than a businessman obsessed with deals and profits. In fact, choosing his career had been an agonizing decision.
Despite his awareness that he was “destined” to be a businessman taking charge of the sprawling family business, he chose to pursue his true passion, history and literature, at Oxford. When he later returned to Singapore, he decided to focus his career on the film business. This decision, I believe, was sparked in part by his effort to harmonize the conflicts between his personal interests and family obligations and in part by his desire to escape from his famous father’s tall shadow. Rather than simply take over the family business, Loke sought also to build a new venture around the modern entertainment of motion pictures, which he believed would both prove his “entrepreneurial spirit” and modernize the everyday culture and sensibility of Southeast Asia.
Indeed, new and modern were the major themes of Loke’s approach to cinema business. On the basis of two movie houses operated by his family, Loke founded the Cathay Organization, whose mission was to build a film exhibition empire in Singapore and Malaya. He articulated his business vision in terms of creating a modern culture of leisure and entertainment as a way of transforming the popular culture and the everyday life of the region:
“I dedicate myself entirely to the film business not only because I have a strong personal interest in it, but because, ultimately, I want to bring [new modes of] pleasures [through modern, sophisticated entertainment] to every person in Southeast Asia...”
To bring his vision into reality was, however, a formidable challenge because of the decolonialization movement and the accompanying political and economic turmoil that swept through the region in the 1950s. Also, to build a film exhibition empire in Southeast Asia was to compete directly with the Shaw brothers, Runmi and Run Run, whose vision, energy, personal network, and entrepreneurial skills had enabled them to reign over Southeast Asian film exhibition since the 1930s. The Shaws owned a chain of over one hundred cinemas across the region, so to challenge their dominance required money, determination, and creativity. In light of this, Loke set out to expand his exhibition circuit both quickly and strategically. Between 1948 and 1955, the Cathay Organization expanded its cinema chain to over forty theaters, and two years later, eleven more were added. In 1957, Loke announced he would invest Strait currency-$10 million in building six more new venues in three years, increasing the Organization’s cinemas to a total of over sixty.
Loke not only expanded his exhibition circuit in Singapore, Malaya, Brunei and N. Borneo quickly and determinedly, he also made his new cinemas the most modern and opulent in the region. Appealing to Southeast Asia's rising middle class, he tried to introduce a modern, bourgeois entertainment culture to the region. In order to have theaters a par with all the “modern cinemas of the world” and to enable audiences to “have the best atmosphere in which to relax completely,” he made all his movie palaces sleek in architectural design and modern in technology and amenities. They were fully air-conditioned, generously equipped with the most advanced Western-made acoustic and visual technology, such as Cinemascope, and lushly decorated with plush chairs and expensive carpets imported from the United States and Europe. For example, the 1557-seat Singapore Odeon, one of Loke’s favorite cinemas, demonstrated his aspiration for Western-style modernity. It boasted two huge parking lots on the ground floor, the “world’s best” York air-conditioners, GB-Kele projectors that were the first available in Southeast Asia, and a luxurious auditorium decorated with the “newest and most advanced” furniture. Revealing Loke’s aspiration of bringing Southeast Asian leisure culture up to the global standard of bourgeois culture, which was shaped by and expressed in Hollywood cinema and movie-going culture, Odeon featured a Hollywood Café with the “most modern” classy decor designed by no one but Loke himself.
In order to supply films to show in his rapidly expanding exhibition network, according to author Lim Kay Tong, in 1955-1956 Cathay began to pay attention to film production, while strengthening its distribution arm, International Film Distribution Ltd. (which supplied films in 14 languages to all Cathay venues in addition to 200 other independently owned cinemas across Southeast Asia). Cathay’s extension into production started with the opportunity created by Yonghua’s insolvency in 1955. As Yonghua’s major distributor in Southeast Asia, Loke had extended several loans to Li Zuyong. With an expansion plan now, Loke decided to take over the company, expand its studio facilities and sign up film talents, including eminent directors Yan Jun and Yue Deng and stars Linda Lin Dai, Lucilla You Min and Grace Chang (Ge Lan). In March 1956 Movie Production & General Investment (MP & GI, or Dianmou in Chinese) was founded to become the Chinese-language film production arm of Cathay. Loke served as its president, and Zhong Qiwen (Robert Chung), a former Yonghua executive who had studied color film production in Hollywood, became the general manager.
According to Law Kar and Shu Kei, the operation and administrative structure of MP&GI were organized largely in line with Hollywood studios, particularly with its creation of a star system and the emphasis it placed on promotion and on script development. MP&GI launched a magazine Guozi dianying, or International Screen, to promote its stars and films to Chinese audiences in Asia. For the first time in Hong Kong (and Chinese) film histories, Loke established a Script Department, which brought together some of the most creative minds from exiled writers, including such famous writers as Song Qi, Sun Jinsan, and Eileen Chang. Contrary to the lack of respect for scriptwriters seen in the Hong Kong film industry, the Script Department played a central role in shaping the studio’s productions. Backed by diasporic capital, and operated as a central part of a transnationally organized, vertically integrated business structure, MP&GI set itself the goal of bringing modern entertainment to all people in Asia and modernizing their popular culture.
Cold War and gender politics of Air Hostess
Many critics have pointed out that during its peak of production between 1957 and 1962, MP&GI Mandarin-language films were predominately sleek, glamorous musicals, comedies, and urban romances that exhibited markedly obvious Hollywood influence in plot construction, generic conventions, and camera movement. This influence was no surprise. In the 1950s and 1960s, a period in which the Cold War division between Freedom and Communism was rampant and the North-South divide was clear-cut, U.S. popular culture dominated Asia. Hollywood became the “universal” standard of filmmaking. In the public mind, Hollywood represented the culture of modernity and the power of the capitalist system. Above all, it represented the standards of modern life and taste that Asians (or other developing people) should “incorporate” if they wanted to “modernize” their lives and culture. Indeed, Loke was known for his passion for Hollywood spectacles and had extensive business and personal connections with the U.S. film industry. Most of his top lieutenants, such as Robert Chung, had received training in the United States. And many of the leading writers and directors at MP&GI had worked in Voice of America radio or honed their filmmaking skills by watching, reviewing, or translating Hollywood films (in Shanghai and in Hong Kong).
At the same time, available research indicates that Cathay-MP&GI was inadvertently entangled in the Cold War politics of anti-communism. Inadvertently because as a “son of the Yellow Emperor” in Singapore-Malaya, Loke traced his ethnic connection to the ancestral land of Confucian civilization. He was reported as getting furious at a Hong Kong press conference when a reporter raised doubts about his Chineseness since he could not speak Chinese. He responded by telling everyone that he was no less a Chinese than anyone else because of his cultural heritage and his loyalty to his Chinese ethnicity. Like most overseas Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s, he identified with “Free China” – Taiwan — as the custodian of Chinese culture and thereby the only legitimate Chinese government. According to Sha Rongfeng, a Taiwan movie executive closely associated with the Nationalist government, Loke was closely connected to Taipei, so much so that in the early 1950s Nationalist officials arranged with him to extend loans to Yonghua to help it survive. Moreover, all MP&GI’s employees came from the anti-Communist exile community, and some of them were connected to Nationalist cultural officials.
These concerns for modernity and anti-communism come through powerfully in MP&GI’s prestigious picture, Air Hostess (Kong zhong xiaojie, 1959), which won the prestigious Jinding prize at Asian Film Festival. Directed by the well-respected scriptwriter-turned-director Yi Wen, who started his career in writing film reviews in wartime Shanghai, Air Hostess was a big budget film with an impressive cast – namely Ge Lan, Qiao Hong, Su Feng, and Lei Zhen — and involved location shooting in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand. It was also one of the first Hong Kong films shot in Eastman color. These high-cost, high-tech production strategies became the films’s selling points, while also serving to highlight its main theme: what it means to be modern in a rapidly changing Asia. The film represents modernity by showing an emerging Asian airline business as an incubator of a new transnational capitalist corporate culture and tracing the impact of this capitalist culture on the changing gender relationship in the “modernizing” Asia. As a publicity article of Air Hostess puts it:
“Airline business marks the progress of human civilization … Air hostess, whose job is to take care of the passengers, are virtually ‘angels.’ Working up on the sky, serving the people [traveling the world], air hostess is a new profession, a most modern profession … They help shorten the distance between people and facilitate movement between nations.”(my italics)
Air Hostess centers upon the search of a young woman Lin Kepin (played by Ge Lan) for a meaningful career and her evolving romance with airline pilot Xu Ke (Qiao Hong). Typical of MP&GI Mandarin productions, all the characters in the film come from a cosmopolitan middle-class Shanghai migrant background. They move around in a Mandarin-speaking community and live in spacious, well appointed apartments (filled with such modern amenities of the time as pianos, big sofas and refrigerators). They enjoy a life seemingly devoid of the kinds of poverty and social and economic difficulties most people were suffering in the colony at the time. As a Mandarin-speaking minority in a predominately Cantonese population, in the fifties and sixties, they were proud of (or nostalgic for) the cosmopolitan cultures they had left behind in the mainland and their modern lifestyle there; they remained aloof from (if not contemptuous of) the local society.
In fact, flight attendant, the profession that conjured up glamour and a modern lifestyle, was invariably associated in the local mind with “northern” migrants (that is, with people from anywhere north of Canton). For example, in another pf MP&GI’s popular comedy, Wang Tianlin’s The Greatest Civil War on Earth (Nanbei he, 1961), a Cantonese-speaking businessman (Leung Shing-bo) concluded after just a quick glance at a pretty woman in an air hostess uniform that she is no local girl because
“with fancy luggage, humming a Mandarin pop tune, and a air hostess – she must be a northern girl (waijiang nu) no doubt.”
So Air Hostess focuses on this diasporic community’s changing lifestyle, attitudes and gender relations to project a trajectory of an emerging culture of capitalist modernity in Asia.
Reminiscent of MP&GI’s 1957 musical Mambo Girl (Manbo nulang), which launched Ge Lan as a superstar in Hong Kong, Air Hostess opens with a nicely constructed party scene in which the beautiful stylish Lin Kepin sings of her dream of “Flying to the Sky” (Wo yao fei shang qing tian) to an admiring well-dressed crowd. She yearns for freedom, a life of glamour and professional fulfillment, and above all the thrills of jet-setting around the globe. When the scene cuts to her at home, we see her arguing with her mother, refusing to marry a boring looking man, whose desire is to keep her in the role of traditional housewife. Rather she wants to pursue her own dream – that is, to become an air hostess.
In the 1950s, few people traveled outside of Hong Kong (or any parts of Asia in this regard) and even fewer traveled by airplane. The airborne experience of modernity was totally alien to most of the audience. The choice of air hostess as a subject of the film, to symbolize modern life, probably came from Loke, a tireless jet-setter who hopped from city to city to make business deals or pursue his varied personal interests. Loke owned several luxurious hotels in the region and was also on the board of the fledgling Malayan Airline and Cathay Pacific Airline. In fact, as if to show what airplane travel and an airborne experience were like, the film contains several long sequences detailing a series of vigorous (or humiliating) tests as well as various kinds of drills and training exercises that Kepin and other girls have to go through in order to become an air hostess. These include language drills, the correct way of moving through the airplane cabin, the proper way to walk and speak with style, and the correct manner to serve coffee to passengers. These scenes seem to be taken directly from airline publicity shorts; they are probably informative to a curious audience but generally lack entertainment value (except probably the sequence describing a series of physical tests all the applicants have to go through with only minimal clothing, which might have aroused the voyeuristic desires of some audience members.
As part of their work, Kepin and other air stewardesses (played by Ye Fen and other starlets) live like modern-day gypsies, stopping over at cities around Asia. Asia becomes a region of interconnected nations which they have access to. This allows the film to showcase the modernity of Singapore, with montages of skyscrapers and Cathay-owned movie palaces, or the exotic beauty of Bangkok. The film's imagery gives the audience an impression of watching a “travelogue” showcasing the beautiful scenery and recent achievements of Southeast Asia. But most controversial at the time was a long scene featuring the “progress of Free China” – depicting a modern, luxurious hotel in Taipei and other Taiwanese tourist attractions (e.g., Wulai Falls). The Ge Lan character is also shown singing a “Song of Taiwan” at a hotel reception to express her affection for the island. The song includes such lines as:
“I love my fellow countrymen of Taiwan
Let me sing a song of Taiwan...
Trading in sugar and sugar cane goes so well,
every household has so much to eat...
All our hearts are linked together as in a line.”
Critics in Hong Kong were quick to point out that the film contained much pro-Taiwan propaganda, celebrating the capitalist development, U.S.-supported industrial modernity and beauty of Free China. It did this in implied contrast to the poverty and turmoil of the mainland, thereby lending itself to the Cold War crusade of anti-communism. Such a critique might be accurate, given Loke’s identification with the Nationalist government and the pro-Taiwan sentiment among most of his employees at MP&GI. But only further research can ascertain any institutional connections between Cathay Organization and the Cold War politics in Asia.
Critic He Guan (who was to became famous the martial arts film director Zhang Che) points out a contradictory characterization of Lin Keping, which reveals the gender politics of Air Hostess. He observes that her character lacks coherence and is therefore not convincing. Although she is portrayed as defiant and independent, refusing to obey her parents so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a professional woman, she allows herself to accept with little show of inner tension all the seemingly unfair, unreasonable rules and make-dominated culture of the airline company (which included the distinct corporate hierarchy and the prohibition against any “personal life when in uniform”).
She also falls in love with the muscular pilot Xu Ke, a devoted company employee who strikes today's viewers as a male chauvinist totally oblivious to her feelings and desires. The pilot subjects Keping to various forms of public humiliation in the interest of the airline company. For example, in one scene inside the cockpit, Keping is smilingly serving coffee to the pilots, who are all men; but Xu Ke seems to be so engrossed in his work that he pays no attention to Keping. And in the following sequence inside the cabin, when Keping chitchats with a passenger, Xu Ke comes out from the cockpit to reprimand her in front of everyone for failing to serve the needs of other passengers. She almost breaks into tears.
It is clear that the modernity Air Hostess projects is markedly gendered. The airline company as a modern transnational corporation functions in the film as an expression of Western Fordist-Taylorist capitalism, which demanded total dedication and emotional identification of individual workers to the mass production regime of hierarchy, rationality, and discipline for the sake of maximum profits and efficiency. According to industrial capitalism's proponents, the system was seemingly harsh and impersonal only because of its efforts to create a disciplined, efficient work force dedicated to serving the corporate mission (and social good). It was actually thought to be a humane, fair system rewarding the best and most hard-working, dedicated of its workers. Clearly pilot Xu Ke represents the “masculine values” of rationality, discipline, and fairness celebrate by Fordist-Taylorist capitalism.
That is why the airline manager (played by Tang Zhen) tells Keping in the climax scene that despite the company’s strict and rigid demands on all its employees and Xu Ke’s roughness and seeming obliviousness to her feelings, the administration and Xu Ke care deeply for her. And in a rare light-hearted scene where Xu Ke, looking uncomfortable, apologies to Keping for his rudeness and insensitivity in scolding her in front of all the passengers. Instead of complaining, Keping, seen in close up, replies understandingly:
“I know that you are only devoted to your work and I respect you for your devotion. I should do the same if I were you.”
Their romance begins to blossom. Keping is a woman who pursues her modern dream and yet whose relationship with Xu Ke is marked by a set of patriarchal values associated with capitalist corporate culture. Thus modern life, Air Hostess seems to suggest, entails not just glamour and luxury, but most importantly also the ethics of hard work, discipline, and professionalism required by the modern capitalist system. Only by incorporating these modern “masculine” values could Asia be able to transform itself into a region of wealth and power.
Aside from Air Hostess, Cathay-MP&GI had produced a string of successful films in the 1950s and early 1960s – including Yue Feng’s comedy Battle of Love (Qingchang ru zhanchang, 1957), Tang Huang’s Sister Long Legs (Chang tui jiejie, 1960), Yi Wen’s’s melodrama Mambo Girl (Manbo nulang 1957), or Wang Tianlin’s romantic comedy The Greatest Civil War on Earth and family drama Father Takes A Bribe (Xiao ernu, 1963). These films were popular in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia and won prestigious prizes in the Asian Film Festival and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival. And Loke’s charisma and the glamour and stylishness of his stars put MP&GI (as well as Hong Kong Mandarin cinema) in the limelight. According to the research of Emilie Yeh, Cathay was planning an ambitious (co)production plan in Taiwan in 1962-1963 as a way to expand both its production facilities and its market shares there.
However, behind’s Loke’s charm and signature smiling face, MP&GI had never made itself a financially self-sustaining studio. According to Cathay’s Chief Accountant Heah Hock Meng, even with a few hits, MP&GI was always in red and its operation depended entirely on the money Loke took out of his family business. By 1963, it had lost a total of over HK$ 6 million, while Cathay was rapidly expanding its circuit of theaters and distribution networks. Tensions were mounting between Singapore and Hong Kong regarding budgetary control and personnel decisions. That led to Robert Chung’s resignation in 1962. This was followed by Loke’s premature death a year later. Soon afterwards, MP&GI was renamed Cathay as part of an overall restructuring to bring it under firmer control of Loke’s low-profiled successor, Chuk Kok Leong.
The success of Loke in recruiting many of the best artistic talents to MP&GI and its rapid expansion of market shares in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia intensified the rivalries with the Shaw Brothers. In 1957, Run Run Shaw came to Hong Kong and declared he would modernize and globalize Chinese-language cinema. Shaw Brothers built the largest film studio in Asia, the Movietown in Clear Water Bay, and the studio launched an “age of color” production in an attempt to edge out the Cathay-MP&GI’s black-and-white films.
Cathay’s expansion to Hong Kong brought capital, a new business strategy and a Hollywood-styled studio system to reinvigorate the Mandarin cinema industry. Many of its most successful films, including Air Hostess, brought to the screen depictions of the many forces that were in the process of sweeping Hong Kong (and Asia) into momentous socioeconomic transformation. And its rivalries with the Shaw Brothers spawned a “golden age” of filmmaking in the 1960s, during which Hong Kong film extended its market reach to all the Chinese communities across the globe. Recently Wong Kar-wai’s films brought the memory of this “golden age” back to us with, among others, his nostalgic look at the colony’s Shanghai diasporic community in In the Mood for Love and his playful uses of the transnational image of air hostesses in Chungking Express. Such works remind us elegantly of the complexly embedded relationship of Hong Kong cinema of today with its varied, complex past.
1. Hong Kong Film Archive has taken the lead in drawing attention to the important contributions of the Cathay-MP&GI to Chinese cinemas by organizing a retrospective on some of its most famous films in 2002. At the same time it brought together a group of film critics, essayists and scholars to publish an anthology which remains the most comprehensive critical study of the company. See Wong Ain-ling ed., The Cathay Story (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2002 ).
2. See Wong Siu-lun, Emigrant Entrepreneurs: Shanghai Industrialists in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp.3 and 23.
3. See Wong Ainling ed., Lixiang niandai (An Age of Idealism) (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2001), pp.8-10.
4. “Guoyu dianying mianlin de kunlan” (Difficulties Facing Mandarin Cinema), Guoji dianying, n.1 (Oct. 1955), pp.41-42 and 50-51.
5. Guoji dianying, n.8 (Aug. 1956), pp.40-41.
6. Lan Rutie, “Shei shuo Xianggang ziyou yingren meiyou gongzuo biaoxian” (It’s Wrong to Accuse Hong Kong Freedom Filmmakers Not Making Contribution), Guoji dianying, n.2 (Nov. 1955), pp.42 and 52; see also Guoji dianying, n.1 (Oct. 1955), pp.46-47.
7. “Guoyu dianying,” pp.50-51; and Guoji dianying, n.6 (Jan. 1956), p.56.
9. See Lim Kay Tong, Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991), pp. 1-20; and Lynn Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990), pp.185-190.
10. Quoted from Lu Haitian, “Chongshang de lixiang” (Lofty Ideal), Guoji dianying, n.3 (Dec. 1955), p.10.
11. Guoji dianying, n.25 (Nov. 1957),, pp.56-57; n.16 (Feb. 1957), pp.2-3; n.2 (Nov. 1955), pp.6-7; and n.3 (Dec. 1955), pp.10-11.
12. Cathay, p.27.
13. Law Kar, “A Glimpse of MP&GI’s Creative/Production Situation: Some Speculations and Doubts” and Shu Kei, “Notes on MP&GI” in Wong Ailing ed, The Cathay Story, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2002.
14. See, for example, “Dian Mou and MP & GI,” pp.150-153.
15. Wang Gungwu, China and The Chinese Overseas (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991), pp.160-180 and 190-221.
16. Sha Rongfeng, Binfen dianying sishi chun (Forty Years of Cinema) (Taipei: Guojia dianying zhiliao guan, 1994), pp.30-33; According to Yeh Yueh-yu, Loke loaned a total of over $500,000 to Yonghua, see her “Taiwan: The Transnational Battlefield of Cathay and Shaws,”in The Cathay Story, p,145. .
17. Guoji dianying, n.20 (June 1957), p.37.
18. See, for example, Gao Shanyue, “Kong zhong xiaojie bieyou yongxin” (The Real Intention of Air Hostess), Da gong bao, June 10, 1959.
19. He Guan “Kong zhong xiaojie” (Air Hostess), Xin sheng wanbao June 14, 1959.
20. Yeh Yueh-yu, “Taiwan: The Transnational Battlefield of Cathay and Shaws” in Wang Ainling, The Story of Cathay, pp.146-148.
21. See Cathay, pp.56-65.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.